Mason-Dixon, fish, tradition, Asia

Books Of The Region

January 21, 2001|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

The Mason and Dixon Line, to William Ecenbarger, is "the world's most famous boundary." Alongside the Great Wall of China or in northern Ireland, perhaps not so; in this country, where the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland used to separate North from South, today the Potomac River is a more realistic dividing line.

Years ago, Ecenbarger, a newspaper and magazine writer, developed an interest in the Mason and Dixon Line; at intervals, he has walked at least half its 365 marshy-craggy miles, checked out its milestones and 5-mile crownstones, photographed it, explored the print and manuscript sources (though skirting Thomas Pynchon's 1997 novel, "Mason and Dixon") and, engagingly, written about it. His book, "Walkin' the Line: A Journey From Past to Present Along the Mason-Dixon" (M. Evans, 224 pages, $21.95), is now the culmination.

In U.S. history, above the Line was freedom; below, slavery. The more Ecenbarger read, and talked with people now living at or near the Line, the more absorbed he became in race relations. From the start, Indians were treated as inferiors; then, in words and actions, many rural whites treated (and still treat) blacks as inferiors -- not just on the Eastern Shore, not just below the line's curving westward tangent but also above it in Pennsylvania. Ecenbarger veers off to nearby towns, he does dozens of cup-of-coffee interviews, he meets many good-hearted locals. But prejudice abides.

"Walkin' the Line" has a second virtue: its harvest of (Maryland) oddments. What tourist brochure mentions the danger that the ever-extending Penn-Calvert divider would nick the Potomac, cutting Maryland in two? In 1930, the awful Pocomoke Swamp fire? The rock collapse in Maryland's biggest cave in 1925 that cost Cavetown its main attraction? Here's to Charles Tindley, from Berlin, the author of "We Shall Overcome." And Willie Mays, playing his first Organized Baseball game in Hagerstown. Here's to the stobs, vistos and zenith sectors of those English astronomer-mathematicians, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, their 100-member staff of axmen and camp makers, and their almost five years' labor.

You call yourself a Marylander, and have never stood at that ultimate wilderness crossroads, where Mason-Dixon and the Appalachian Trail intersect?

The jacket on William McCloskey's latest novel calls commercial deep-sea fishing "America's most dangerous profession." With every new book of his -- this one is "Breakers" (The Lyons Press, 350 pages, $24.95) -- the less that claim is disputed.

McCloskey, now 72, has been a Sun reporter, Applied Physics Laboratory staff member and commercial fishing boat crew member; this is the fifth of his books -- fiction, nonfiction, traversing hemispheres and oceans. But his favorite grounds, earlier in "Highliners" and (many of the same people reappearing) now in "Breakers," is the North Pacific, famous for its cold, its storms, its international competitors.

Among action novels, this one stands out for the interest its author takes not only in deck speechways but in the command mentality. By now Hank Crawford has broad experience, his own boat and crew, a capable wife and young children. But over and over, on land as well as at work, somehow things go wrong.

Kabbalah is the Jewish word for tradition: specifically, the ancient oral mysticism, apart from the Old Testament, that was finally put into writing in Europe in the 12th century. In "Kabbalah and the Art of Being" (Routledge, 176 pages, $20.05, softbound), Shimon Shokek, of the Baltimore Hebrew University faculty, pulls meaning from spiritualism, particularly as to a practical way of living. Learned (Aristotle, Aquinas, Maimonides, Jung) yet accessible, the book offers this: Creation conferred existence but also separation from the Creator. Ever since, humans have yearned to go back to God, via repentance for much of what has gone on here since creation.

The chapter on "Godot and the Jewish Art of Waiting" is quite wonderful.

Challenge a U.S. college graduate to differentiate among the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties in early China, and the response is a horselaugh. The history major may do no better -- today's history departments harbor more specialists than generalists. But now comes Warren I. Cohen of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, surveying the four millennia just ended in East Asia.

His book, "East Asia at the Center: 4,000 Years of Engagement With the World" (Columbia, 516 pages, $35), is a detailed, general-reader overview of everything below Siberia and above the Himalayas, plus the offshore archipelagos and the march of Islam. With maps, time-lines and celebrity lists; without partisanship. Earlier, Cohen's field was U.S. foreign policy; "East Asia at the Center" is an intellectual feat.

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